Sunday, September 14, 2014

EXPLORING BARRA AND VATERSAY

Castlebay, Barra
After landing at Barra's beach airport, one of the world's ten best approaches, I drove into Castlebay. This is the main village on the island and is well named for out in the middle of the bay is a medieval castle sitting on a rock. Kisimul has guarded Barra since prehistory. Why? It also has a fresh water spring within it. More later.

I'm staying at Castlebay Hotel, built in 1880, that has a commanding view of the bay. This morning, after an enormous Scottish breakfast, I was ready to explore the whole island and the smaller Isle of Vatersay, to the south. The wind blew the marine cloud away at 11am and I wandered happily.



Earsary on the east coast
Eoligarry in the north

















I started on the east coast of Barra, considered to be less beautiful than the west, Atlantic side. It has it's own charm, however. I prowled by rocky, narrow inlets, white houses scattered beside these sheltered harbours, and shooed sheep out of my way. Up the winding road to the north, I found Eoligarry with a small harbour and a vast, empty beach, one of many here. This is a trailhead for hikers and serious walkers as the road ends here. The sun made its appearance and brightened steadily.

The only way to follow the west coast road south was to backtrack a bit, drive past the airport that was preparing for the first flight of the day, and then start stopping around every corner. The coast is sand dunes, empty, and wild. Inland the ground rises to small mountains, covered with rocks, heather, and bracken. The Atlantic swells are unimpeded from the west, and surfers love their purity. I didn't see any, but it's out of season.
Allasdale on Barra's west coast


Along this west side of Barra, the beaches are white sand, crescent-shaped, and quite unspoiled. A walk here is a must. I've found my low-cut hiking boots to be the best thing I packed on this trip. The sand is packed hard by the tides, and the smell of the sea filled my nose. Cattle and sheep were the only living creatures I encountered, except for one woman reading her book on a bench.

The dunes at Allasdale
I circled the whole island and returned to my hotel for a snack lunch in the bar with a pint of pale ale from the Orkneys.

Again I stared at the castle in the bay and read that the Vikings used this site and fortified it before the Clan Macneil made it their stronghold. They were known for their lawlessness and piracy in Elizabethan times. By the 18th century the Macneils had abandoned the castle for a more comfortable spot on Barra. It deteriorated and the clan lost it to bankruptcy as well as their ownership of Barra.



Most of the clan emigrated to Canada and in 1915 one of them made a successful claim to recover the chiefdom and Barra. Eventually the castle underwent an excellent restoration from 1956–1970. It is well worth a visit today by taking a boat tour from Castlebay.

*****


Siar Bay faces west and the Atlantic
I set out for Vatersay, the tiny island south of Barra. A short causeway joins the two islands now, built in 1991. Although tiny, this isle has two of the best beaches in the Hebrides. One faces east and directly behind it, separated by dunes, the other faces the Atlantic.

The roads here are strewn with sheep and often have grass growing down the middle. Sometimes they simply peter out and somehow I had to turn the car around with little room. This lane is the width of a Honda Fit, which is the rental car I have here. I wouldn't want anything bigger....

Eighty people are resident year-round on Vatersay and are mainly fishers and farmers. There is a huge demand for herring, lobster, hake and other fish and shellfish from the Hebrides.

After a pleasant hour exploring, walking, and photographing, I had thoroughly covered the whole of Vatersay. There are no caf├ęs, washrooms, or any facilities for visitors here. Nor a gas station, stores, or gift shops. It is totally unspoiled.

Our tour of the Outer Hebrides was customized for me by McKinlay Kidd, award-winning experts in tours of Scotland and Ireland.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved